Decades ago the police paraded Maya Tyagi naked through the streets of a UP town for alleged misdemeanor. Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister justified the police action by describing Maya Tyagi as a woman of dubious character. So much for a woman PM defending the rights of women!
In the current fake encounter case two women witnesses of the murder, not described as criminals, were allegedly killed by the police to ensure their silence. More cases of fake encounters by the same police officers are surfacing.
Is it too cynical to suggest that the revelations in Gujarat have surfaced only because of a silent power struggle within the BJP? The Hindu wrongly attributed a police report related to the Gujarat fake encounter to one officer. The Gujarat government rebutted the news. The Hindu conceded that the report had not been officially submitted but was in its preparatory stage. Significantly, The Hindu editor claimed that the report had been leaked by a senior BJP leader. BJP leaders maintained a diplomatic silence over the editor's claim.
The current buzz against police fake encounters lends hope that it will lead eventually to a systemic reform. To ensure that any such effort is not derailed one must recognize reality. The hard reality is that police excess in India has decades-old origins. It was allowed to flourish under criminalized politicians and a subservient media. Political parties and the media have always distanced themselves from this ugly reality of law and order.
Last week the leading columnist of a national daily commented that India could not claim to be a democracy if it 'countenances rogue police officers playing God'. The leading columnist of another national daily, while deploring the police excess in Gujarat, suggested that the ultimate responsibility lay with India's middle class which condoned police crimes. Was the distinguished columnist including media as part of the middle class?
Politicians across the country are pulling out old fake encounter cases from closets to score points against political rivals. Fake encounters have become the current drawing room conversation topic. Whatever the motives of politicians in digging out old dirt, the effect is positive. Whether the muckraking arises from infighting or from a belated sense of responsibility, the result is welcome. It could initiate a long delayed cleanup of the police system.
Consider the case of Punjab. An Akali-BJP combine now rules the state. The consequent desire of the Punjab government to even the score against the Congress after the Gujarat exposure is self-evident. Media reports revealed that several alleged terrorists 'killed' by the police, for which policemen duly collected rewards, are still alive. This was sufficient ground for the Punjab government to order 'a fact-finding inquiry' by a team under a senior police official. The probe will cover the fake killings involving the state police during the height of the militancy two decades ago when the Congress governed Punjab.
Should one laugh or cry over the antics of these politicians and over our hand-wringing media pundits? What new facts will any inquiry reveal? It may be instructive, though, to recall the past. This should among other things set the record straight for the benefit of the distinguished newspaper columnist who condemned the middle class for allowing excesses by the police.
Reports of police excesses against innocents in the name of fighting militancy had circulated in Punjab for a considerable time. Many youths had disappeared. In 1995 Jaswant Singh Khalra, who headed the human rights wing of the Akali Dal, issued a press note alleging thousands of police custodial deaths. Khalra claimed that the victims were secretly cremated. In the police records they were listed as 'unidentified'. The Punjab Director General of Punjab police at the time, KPS Gill, rebutted Khalra's claim. He said: 'Thousands of Sikh youth who had left for foreign countries under fake names and documents were claiming to be missing persons killed by security forces in encounters.' He added, 'They are missing with the consent of their parents.' It is possible some youths might have disappeared in this manner. But to offer this as adequate explanation for the disappearance of all the missing youth betrayed careless, callous thinking.
The Punjab media picked up the report. After this, Khalra was whisked away by the police. He too disappeared. It was presumed he was killed. Middle class citizens (newspaper columnists please note) belonging to human rights bodies formed an apex body, the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP). It was funded solely by local donors. CCDP took Khalra's case to the Supreme Court. Ensuing investigation proved that Khalra had been killed. Nine police officials were indicted. The Supreme Court then ordered the CBI to investigate Khalra's charges of secret police mass cremations.
The CBI confirmed that the police had illegally cremated 2097 victims of custodial death or fake encounters in Amritsar district alone. The remaining 16 districts of Punjab were not investigated. Of these victims the CBI identified 582 who were all non-terrorists. The CCDP identified over 1700 victims and their families. It chronicled the torture, harassment and extortion inflicted by the police on the victims and their families. Many among them were unconnected to terrorism, and killed in cold blood by the police. A leading CCDP activist, Ram Narayan Kumar, wrote a meticulously researched book, Reduced to Ashes, which laid bare the whole truth of this gruesome carnage.
After the CBI report the Supreme Court in 1997 designated the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to deal with the case. It vested NHRC with full powers of the Supreme Court. Apart from awarding paltry compensation to the families of victims, the NHRC did precious little. In 2002 LK Advani and Amarinder Singh pleaded amnesty for all the tainted policemen. KPS Gill continued to trash human rights activists on TV. The national media virtually ignored the 2097 police custodial deaths that had been verified by the CBI and the Supreme Court.
Recall ' Pinochet of Chile was held personally responsible for 3000 innocents killed; and Milosevic of Serbia, personally, for the death of 2000 innocents. Both were reviled as international war criminals. But for 2097 deaths in only one district of Punjab nobody has been held accountable. Who is to blame for this ' the politicians and media, or the middle class?